In the final days of the 2020 census count, a young census taker approached me as I was unloading my car, looking for information about a nearby house.
How many people lived there? she wanted to know. How many adults? How many children?
I did my best to answer her questions, and the census taker seemed satisfied, smiling and waving good-bye as she headed off down the street.
But I couldn’t help but wonder how many of my neighbors the Census had missed, either because they didn’t fill out their census forms or because they weren’t home or didn’t answer the door when a canvasser stopped by.
I expected New York to fare poorly in the census.
The count was conducted during a deadly pandemic, and whenever officials talked about it, it was to sound the alarm over dismal response rates and urge people to get counted. Having grown accustomed to grim annual reports documenting the exodus of upstate New Yorkers to other states, I was ready for the 2020 Census to bring more of the same.
New York’s new population numbers, released Monday, aren’t at all what I expected.
They’re better than anticipated, if ultimately disappointing.
A state many expected to lose two Congressional seats as a result of national population shifts will lose just one, to Minnesota.
And it almost avoided that fate: New York fell just 89 – 89! – residents short of keeping all of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
This is a number that will haunt those who warned New York’s lagging census response rate would prove costly for years, raising all kinds of what ifs.
What if the count hadn’t been conducted in a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic?
What if the Trump administration hadn’t decided to end the census count four weeks early, with 60 million U.S. households still uncounted? What if door-knocking had started earlier, in an attempt to reach those least likely to fill out their census form online?
In a state with 20 million residents, 89 is nothing – there are more people living on my street.
Losing a Congressional seat will have consequences.
It means less influence and clout at the national level, and a smaller slice of the federal funding available for housing, education, transportation and other vital social services programs.
It also suggests that New York might benefit from some self-reflection.
The Empire State is one of just seven states that will see its Congressional delegation shrink in the next decade, from 27 seats to 26, and it ought to be cause for concern.
The state’s political leaders seldom seem interested in discussing the reasons for New York’s weak population growth, or figuring out how to address it. To listen to them, you’d think there was nothing wrong, which simply isn’t the case.
The news isn’t all bad.
New York’s population has grown 4.2% since 2010, outpacing more recent estimates.
And its Congressional delegation will still be the fourth-largest in the country.
Still, I suspect the sting of this week’s Census Bureau announcement will linger.
Had things gone just a little bit differently, the state would be better positioned for the future.
That’s a tough pill to swallow, whatever the reason for it.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.